Definitive Dirk Manning Part 1: NIGHTMARES & Mysteries
Definitive Dirk Manning Part 1
You know Dirk Manning. He writes Nightmare World. He writes Tales of Mr. Rhee, the syndicated webcomic that appears right here at Blog@Newsarama. He writes the "Write or Wrong" column here on the main site. But do you really know Dirk Manning? As we near the release of the third and final Nightmare World volume, we got together with Dirk for a two-part discussion about his work, webcomics, and the devils in the details.
Dirk Manning: In the scheme of things I was actually pretty late to the game regarding comics, as I didn’t start seriously reading them until I was about 13 years old. I’ve been a bookworm all my life, and I read so fast it got to the point where I literally was looking for something that I could read and then look forward to more of on a fairly regular basis.
A local skateboard shop started stocking an HUGE display of comics (yes, I was a skater – and rocked my original Steve Caballero board with pride, yo!) and I decided to take the plunge with The Incredible Hulk since I had fond memories of the TV show when I was a child.
The first issue was Part One of the four-part “Countdown” story in that title by Peter David and I was instantly hooked.
Shortly thereafter I decided I wanted to get into a series at the ground floor, and as a result I went to a nearby comic shop and found out a new series called Ghost Rider had just started, and the notion of a flaming skeleton appealed to my finer teenage horror sensibilities, hence drawing me in a little further.
Before too long I developed a friendship with a guy working at the store, and he foisted a beat-up run of the Watchmen issues on me dirt cheap after I expressed an interest in it after hearing some of the cool counter-culture kids at school raving about it.
Upon reading Watchmen I discovered the amazing storytelling devices that are exclusive to the comics medium. Now, over 20 years since I first poured over the issues in awe of what I was seeing (again, in regards to how the story was told more than anything else) I still cite Watchmen as the book that irrevocably hooked me on comics.
Oh… and over two decades later I’m still friends with the guy that got me to read it, too. [laughs]
Nrama: What was your break-in moment in the industry?
Considering this, I’d have to say that my “break-in moment” was when, upon wrapping-up the series online publishing our 52nd and final eight-page story in the series, me sending a link to the completed series – along with a few jpeg samples – to Jim Valentino at Shadowline to see if we could re-release Nightmare World sort of “in syndication” at their then burgeoning webcomics hub.
He was hesitant at first because of the negative stereotypes that surround both horror books and anthology-style books, but once he saw the quality (and diversity) of the work we were offering with Nightmare World he decided to give us a shot… and by our second month with Shadowline we were the most-read comic at www.ShadowlineOnline.com, a ranking we held throughout the two-years straight in which we ran the series there.
This of course lead to Shadowline releasing Nightmare World in print as a series of TPB collections, with the third one now being offered in PREVIEWS right now on Page 189 (Diamond Order Code: AUG11 0447) – with an “Image Spotlight” to boot.
Jim has really taken Nightmare World – this sweeping horror epic consisting of 52 stand-alone stories that all interconnect to tell a second giant story – under Shadowline’s wing and made the TPB collections Shadowline’s yearly “Halloween Book”… and when that happened – when that first print collection with the Shadowline logo and the “Image I” on it came out… that’s when I knew, come what may, that we had finally part of the comic industry rather than that punk-rock DIY-mentality guy who just happened to have this really great “cult-classic webcomic.”
Manning: Ha! Therein lies a tale…
Contrary to what a lot of people might suspect given how “open” I am about things in interview and even here at Newsarama in my “Write or Wrong” column, I really am a private person at heart in the sense that, well, I like to be able to leave my work at work, if that makes sense.
Years ago when I was a college op-ed writer, and then after that when I was a regional music journalist, my picture was in the local papers and ’zines all the time… and as my friends can attest to, it got to the point where I couldn’t just go to a club to see a band or something without people hitting me up to review their band or discuss a review I wrote with them or something.
I’ve always loved talking to people about stuff I’m passionate about (obviously)… but at the same time, sometimes it’s nice to be able to just go to a concert or a comic con or whatever and not have to deal with being stopped every ten steps, you know? Mind you, I’m not trying to say that I was being mobbed by people wherever I went, but it got to a point where I couldn’t go anywhere without someone recognizing me and stopping me to talk in the mall, at a restaurant or a club (especially) back in those music journalism days.
Considering this, when I started getting into comics journalism and then comic writing, I vowed that I would never again use a “real” picture of myself in conjunction with my work – especially considering that everything I was doing was now online across the world rather than just regional print magazines and newspapers.
Well, when I was starting the “Write or Wrong” column here for Newsarama five years ago this month (I still can’t believe it’s been five years already!) I was having this very same discussion with my good friend/Nightmare Worldletterer & design guy Jim Reddington, and he said, coyly, “You should come-up with a “publicity shot” that can represent you – Dirk Manning – as a ‘brand’… a picture that can also serve as your ‘logo.’”
I laughed it off for about five seconds and then realized the genius in what he was saying, which lead me to ask him what he had in mind.
I laughed again when he told me his idea… but we were able to pull it off with enough of a “tongue-in-cheek” feel that it still makes me laugh every time I see it.
I’d like to think at this point everyone knows it’s just for fun… although I will say that, at conventions, some people got mad or didn’t believe that I was me since the guy sitting at the table, despite wearing a black suit, wasn’t really Dirk Manning since I wasn’t wearing a sunglasses, hat and scarf.
Sadly, I think I’m now also going to have to get a little button that has my famous Dirk Manning publicity shot on it too, since sometimes I’ll be chatting with other professionals at the bar after a day at the con or something (throwing back Shirley Temples, of course) only for them to say – 20 minutes into the conversation – “Wait a minute… you’re DIRK MANNING?!? I totally didn’t recognize you without your hat and scarf!” [laughs]
I figure if I just get a button and pin it to my lapel people will be able to put two and two together a lot quicker. [laughs]
So there you have it… the sordid history of the famous “Dirk Manning” photo and how I’m now all but married to it… not that I’m complaining, of course. I mean, hey, it serves its purpose well, and like I said, to this day I still laugh every time I look at it. [laughs]
Nrama: Going back to Nightmare World for a minute, what's the attraction in horror for you?
Manning: You know, I often have to defend my love of horror… especially to people who meet me at a convention or something and are a bit surprised at how I’m this happy, friendly guy (rather than a morose and stand-off-ish goth dude) who really, really likes horror, and I always tell them the same thing I’m about to tell you.
First, there’s a difference between “horror” and “good horror.” People have to keep “Sturgeon’s Law” about how 90 of anything is junk, but it horror, superhero comics, comedy TV, music, etc.
There’s a lot of really good horror out there in film, literature and comics… but you have to be willing to look for it.
What constitutes “good horror” is subjective, of course, but as far as I’m concerned “torture porn” or “blood and boobies” are NOT good horror. It’s cheap and schlocky and… I dunno… kind of boring and stupid, to me, at least.
Good horror – in my mind – tells you something about the human condition when faced with extreme circumstances… and that’s the type of “horror” I personally gravitate to as well as the types of stories I tell when I write my horror books such as Nightmare World and Tales of Mr. Rhee.
For example, what would you do if you and your pregnant wife were stranded on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean with no hope of rescue in the near future? How far could you – or would you – go to save their lives? That’s the dilemma I put forth in the first story of the first volume of Nightmare World, and we keep telling those types of stories throughout the whole series.
Good horror isn’t about shocking people or trying to have a gross-out-fest… it’s about making people think about themselves, the world around them, and what they would do if it all suddenly fell apart around them. I mean, heck, isn’t that why we also all enjoy The Walking Dead so much?
Nightmare World is another series that takes that same approach to horror… but we do it using dozens upon dozens of short “morality plays” that, as an added bonus, over time all connect to also tell one grand story about Lucifer’s plan to seize control of Creation from God, which is the greatest “morality play” of all.
Besides… what would you do if you found yourself living in a world where, quite simply, the second war between Lucifer and Heaven happened and The Devil won?
Nrama: Drink heavily. Building on that, what, in your opinion, makes for an effective horror story?
Manning: Like I said, an effective horror story should make you question yourself and the world around you and what would happen to them both should everything radically change – be it due to events that are natural or supernatural – or both.
Some of the best Nightmare World stories – in my mind, at least – are the ones that don’t rely as heavily on any “supernatural” elements.
“Try Honesty” from Nightmare World Volume 1: “13 Tales of Terror” is about a cop making a very emotional confession to his partner, and despite the fact that there’s no traditional/supernatural “horror” aspect to the story I think it’s one of the scariest stories in that collection. Similarly, “Violet” in the collection has only a very small supernatural element to it towards the end, but it’s a very, very powerful, moving and romantic story that has moved several readers to tears… and yet it’s still very much a horror story.
Nightmare World Volume 2: “Leave the Light On” contains my Sherlock Holmes story “While You Sleep, I Destroy Your World” and despite the fact that there are no supernatural elements to it at all, it’s – for my money – one of the best stories I’ve ever written… and again, it speaks to the human condition in extreme circumstances: What’s it like to be the smartest man in the world, and what happens when the man who hates you more than anything realizes that you’ve created the world around yourself just to keep you from getting bored?
Nightmare World Volume 2 also features “Without You I’m Nothing,” which is the story of a superhero’s wife who’s trying to convince him to not go fight a villain that will, unquestionably – be the death of him. (HINT: It has the body of Godzilla with giant bat wings and an octopus for a head.) I mean, hey, she fell and love with this guy and married him because he’s invincible and she’s never be in danger of losing him… but now she’s going to and she’s desperately trying to stop him from fulfilling what he feels is his duty – if not his destiny. Sure, on the surface it’s a story about a superhero fighting Cthulhu… but the theme – what the story is really about – is that feeling we all have about how when we fall in love we imagine this person being in our life forever… only to then one day being forced to face the possibility – or reality – of a world without him or her in it.
To me, that’s more of a “horror story” than any werewolf or zombie or vampire story.
In Nightmare World Volume 3: “Demon Days” we’re continuing these themes, although we’re focusing on them more in the post-Armageddon/post-Rapture world of Nightmare World. The Devil has won… now what? Demons secretly live among us… how do you handle it?
I look at Nightmare World Volume 3 as the third-act of a play, in which we can finally see everything interconnecting and weaving together in a nice little bow, and in doing so readers will get thirteen more great morality plays that will stick with them for a long time after reading them… but will also offer readers a chance to go back and re-examine the whole print trilogy from a new perspective, too…
And that, right there, is the other thing that constitutes “effective horror.” Effective horror stories sticks with you for a long time… they plant those thoughts in your brain that stay there for years, if not a lifetime.
That was my goal with Nightmare World, and it’s a testament to the work both I and the two dozen plus talented artists who worked on the series with me that readers new and old routinely tell us that these stories do just that.
Nrama: How did the Nightmare World framework come about in the first place?
Nightmare World, in its infancy, was meant to be a showcase – an online portfolio of sorts – for all of us involved. After all, if you’ll allow me to put-on my “Write or Wrong” hat for a moment, the best way to show editors and publishers that you can write or draw comics is to write or draw comics. [laughs]
Once the first few stories were written and being worked on we started publishing the stories online… and then a crazy thing happened. Artists – really talented artists, mind you – as in guys and girls who are now top-tier talents – started approaching me and asking me if I could write a story for them to draw so they could showcase their work through the Nightmare World online comic.
As anyone who writes (or wants to write) comics can tell you, the notion of having good artists knock on your door is akin to the stuff of fantasy. [laughs]
As Nightmare World got more and more popular as this really cool sort of “underground” online comic it soon got to a point where I literally couldn’t keep up with getting scripts to artists, and actually had to turn some away since I didn’t have the time to get them a good script. One such artist was a then up-and-coming illustrator by the name of Francesco Francavilla.
Yes… that Francesco Francavilla. [sigh]
Someday I hope to get the chance to work with him and write something just for him, though.
But I digress...
Once I got to the point where I had more than enough artists to really run with the series (this was around the time the 24th Nightmare World script had been written and delivered) I realized that I would be able to make the series what I always secretly desired it to be: A huge series of seemingly stand-alone, genre-hopping and thought-provoking horror stories that also quietly and covertly weaved together to tell one giant uber-story.
I wanted to make sure that, if I began to let the connections between the stories be seen, though, that we’d be able to actually see things through to the end, so I e-mailed everyone I was working with, let them know of my plan, and wanted to make sure they were willing to stick with me (or, to be more honest, put up with me) long enough to make it happen.
Everyone was very excited about this approach – and surprised that I had this “secret vision” for the project that I never shared with them, and I then dove into writing the second batch of twenty-five stories in which I started to show people how so many of these stories did indeed connect to each other as part of one grand epic.
My plan at that point was to wrap up the series with story #50… but I ended-up going to #52 partially because I realized that the uber-story’s eulogy really needed to be a fully-realized eight-page story (which is titled “Eulogy” and is one of the 13 stories in Nightmare World Volume 3) and partially because I miscounted and accidentally sent one extra script I wrote to an artist who fell in love with it and completely nailed the pages.
There’s a writing confession I never told anyone before! [laughs]
Manning: After I reached the “Holy Grail” of my own music journalism career by landing and completing an in-person interview with the Faith No More/Mr. Bungle/Tomahawk/ Fantômas frontman/vocal god Mike Patton (which, to be fair, I must admit I was able to set-up only after I was accidentally mistaken as a roadie for Mr. Bungle – which I ran with, of course!) I realized that it was time for me to get to writing about my other main passion in life, which is of course comics.
I started out my writing and editing comic reviews and such for several smaller websites and online zines (this was also when I vowed I would only write for websites and publishers that published their work online as well in print), and after I got some road behind me doing that I e-mailed Matt Brady, told him about my experience and asked him if he’s consider letting me write for Newsarama. I even made a silly joke about how I’d be X-Static to write for the site, to which he replied with a cyber-groan and gave me a shot doing some interviews with creators and such.
After several successful writing assignments and a friendship formed, I asked him if he would be willing to let me write a weekly column in which I talked about and gave advice concerning creating comics as a writer. Again, he very graciously agreed, and the result was the birth of “Write or Wrong”, which celebrated its five year anniversary column early this month! I simply don’t have the time to do it weekly anymore (obviously), but I try write a really full column ten to twelve times a year since the column us so important to me and other aspiring creators alike. I mean, hey, I would have killed to have a free and continuing resource like “Write or Wrong” out there when I was getting started, you know? [laughs]
Nrama: Writing about the act of writing from a position of authority can be kind of a scary proposition, particularly when you know that other writers are reading it. Has this ever caused any strange moments for you personally?
Manning: I’m very, very open about things in “Write or Wrong,” so it’s pretty hard for me to be embarrassed of anything like that.
The only “strange” moment that resulted from the column came several years ago when I wrote a column that talked specifically about the obstacles that aspiring writers would have to realistically prepare for and deal with if they wanted to make a serious go at making comics.Well, a very prominent and outspoken comic artist who had clearly never read the column before jumped into the comment thread at the bottom of the article (remember those glory days? *sigh*) and just started ripping me a new @$$hole about how “negative” I was being for trying to squelsh the dreams of aspiring creators.
Honestly, I was kind of miffed about for a long time – or, to be more specific, miffed about how he never had the courtesy or (as I saw it) integrity to say “Hey, man… my bad,”… but, whatever. I’ve since learned that he’s a very vocal creator and that’s just part of what he does, and found it funny (and flattering) that a short time later he started a short-lived column of his own for Newsarama. Heck, I’ll even go as far as to say I can respect him for being so “open” about his feelings about everything… but the right thing to do would have been for him to make a post admitting that his very sharp-worded critiques about me and what I via “Write or Wrong” were very unfair and pretty-much baseless.
Anyway, last year we were both at Mid-Ohio Con so at the end of the show I approached him, introduced myself (since he of course he has no idea who I was since I wasn’t wearing a top hat and scarf), reminded him of the incident (I’m not sure he remembered it, honestly) and told him that, for what it was worth, I was over it.
Again, I’m not sure any of this mattered to him at all, but I had to do it for my own sake. I then sent him a “Friend Request” on Facebook, which he accepted, and I can honestly say I genuinely enjoy his posts and updates there even if I don’t agree with all of them.
Hopefully upon reading this he won’t “Unfriend” me. [laughs]
Nrama: Speaking of shows, how important has the convention circuit been to you in cultivating readership?
I’m obviously in the throes of a massive press junket-style promotion tour for Nightmare World Volume 3 (which is in Previews on p189 and available for pre-order at local comic shops, book stores, and Amazon) right now (see what I mean?), but for the other eleven months out of the year when I’m discussing and promoting my work online – mainly on Facebook and Twitter I feel like, by and large, I’m just talking to my friends and other people who are already “plugged-in” to what I do and are enjoying it.
With conventions, though, I get to talk to a lot of new people about my work, and that’s really exciting for me – and it brings a lot of new people to stuff like Nightmare World and Tales of Mr. Rhee.
Again, and I feel like I’m coming a bit full circle here, I’ll talk to people at shows and they’ll decided to check out my work only to come back the next day or drop me a line on Facebook or something just gushing, saying stuff like “You know, I never really liked horror stuff but it was nice talking to you so I picked-up Nightmare World and I was totally blown away…
That’s a really, really good feeling… probably only second to the people who e-mail me or come talk to me at a show and tell me how much “Write or Wrong” helped them get started in making their own comics. Heck, someone just told me on a podcast recently that the only reason they were able get started in making comics was because of “Write or Wrong” and it was so emotional I almost started crying on the air. [laughs]
With cons, though, man… as anyone who has ever seen me at a convention can tell you, I’m there on a mission, and that mission is to let people know about my work. After all, it’s not like I’ve been given a chance to write, say, a Midnight Sons mini-series for Marvel or anything like that. I only work on creator-owned work, you know? Considering this, I don’t have this massive marketing machine behind me, nor the mainstream exposure of a Hollywood film based on one of my works (yet)… so it’s my job to tell people who might otherwise give books like Nightmare World a chance why and how they might really enjoy it… and more often than not people that take the time to hear about it end up picking it up and really enjoying it… even if they’re not people who normally identify themselves as “horror fans.”
Considering this, yeah, the convention circuit has been really, really good to me, especially C2E2, Detroit Fanfare, Mid-Ohio Con and Heroes Con (the latter being a show I desperately need to get back to).
I’ve yet to ever hit San Diego, New York or Baltimore due to time (and, in the case of San Diego, financial) restraints… but I’m very excited about the fact that it looks like I’ll be joining Jim Valentino for all of Shadowline’s convention appearances in 2012. He’s seen me work the table – and knows that I sell a ridiculous amount of books at any show I go to (and not just my own) – so I’m looking forward to finally getting to some of the other shows and, dare I say it, perhaps finally hitting San Diego.
Pimpin’ my work (as well as all of the other great titles from Shadowline Comics aside, it’s of course so much fun to meet-up with old friends and make new ones at the shows. Believe it or not, I used to be REALLY shy at shows and I would never go to the “bar-cons” after hours to mingle… and it was only after I started hanging out with Jim Valentino and Shadowline started publishing the Nightmare World books that I finally “came out of my shell” (in real-life, anyway) and started socializing after-hours a bit more.
Heck, nowadays I’ll go to an after-show gathering and people will yell out “DIRK MOTHERF**KING MANNING” at the top of their lungs, as if it’s a demented and geeky re-run of Cheers or something. [laughs]
Those of you youngsters out there who don’t know what I’m talking about, go Google “Cheers Norm” to see what I mean when you’re done reading this… [laughs]
Oh, and if you’ll let me put on my “Write or Wrong” hat for one more moment, it’s worth mentioning that I usually do really well at book store signings, too. Up-and-coming comic creators could do well to in contacting their local/regional comic book stores and book stores to see if they could do a once-or-twice a year signings there when they have big sales going on or something. After all, people attend sales because they want to pick-up some new stuff, so why not be there and make your work an option, you know?
I mean, if you don’t ask the answer is always “no,” right? Considering this, you should at least ask… [laughs]
Manning: I did a panel at Mid-Ohio Con about digital comics last year where the Moderator referred to me as one of the “O.G.s” (for you older readers out there, that stands for “Original Gangsters,” yo) of online comics, and he was dead on the money, which makes me realize how far the industry has finally come in catching-up to those the people like me who were doing this almost 10 years ago. [laughs]
Back in 2002 I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out why no one else was doing what I was doing, which was publishing full-realized comics online (rather than crudely drawn, three-panel gag “webcomics”) that would then packaged for print.
I was talking to everyone I knew about this approach when I started, only for so many other aspiring creators to none-too-subtly tell me that I was out of my mind and that no one would ever want to read comics on computer screens and then laugh in my face.
Guess who’s laughing now? [laughs]
Snarkiness aside, it was a comment reaction, though, as so many of my peers and professionals alike were convinced that you wouldn’t be able to “monetize” content you have away online. Scott Allie over at Dark Horse was the first ones to really see the potential in what I was saying, though, and kudos for him to showing that you could successfully publish new content online and then take it to print with the “MySpace/Dark Horse Presents” project. I’m obviously not in a position to say how successful it was or wasn’t for them, but once one of the “big dog” publishers like Dark Horse did it I think it gave a lot more “legitimacy” to the method, and that’s when you started to see more of a push towards online content being available from the other big three publishers.
There’s still a big learning curve to be had with publishing comics online and in print, but kudos to DC Comics for going day-of-sale digital as far as I’m concerned. There are a lot of potential readers out there who have never set foot in a comic store but will download a new comic they heard about… and maybe downloading that comic will lead them into a comic store… or maybe not.
Either way, it’s all about making this medium – this art-form – available to as many people as possible in as many ways as possible… and the rise in prevalence in tablet computers is really going to be a game-changer in regards to the popularity of reading comics on computers and mobile devices.
Heck, in the ultimate irony, I now kind myself, one of the first creators to publish my work online via Nightmare World, now racing to make sure the Nightmare World print graphic novels are available for people to download! In fact, I was just at the doctor’s office the other day and the nurse was complaining to me that she couldn’t find a copy of Nightmare World anywhere. This statement really took me aback, as I know that all the local book stores and comic shops carry it, and when I told her this she replied, “No, no… I want to download it on my Kindle.” [laughs]
“There is no law of progress. Our future is in our own hands, to make or to mar. It will be an uphill fight to the end, and would we have it otherwise? Let no one suppose that evolution will ever exempt us from struggles.” “You forget,” said the Devil, with a chuckle, “that I have been evolving too.”
– William Ralph (Dean) Inge, Things New and Old, 1933
That pretty much sums-up everything right there, be it about digital comics, my work on Nightmare World and now Tales of Mr. Rhee and some other upcoming projects I can’t quite talk about yet, or, really, my whole career to date, I suppose.
“I have been evolving, too.” [laughs]